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Lowell School Gears Up for Place in National DOE Spotlight

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA PIRO

LOWELL- For many Robinson Middle School students, the question isn't whether they want a college education.

It's how to get it.

Take fifth-graders Mariana Georges, Alex Lavigne and Monica Song. Do they want to go to college? Sure, all three nod. But Mariana is quick to point out the obstacle.

"You need to pay money," the 10-year-old says seriously.

Helping students pursue their career dreams or, in some cases, instilling those dreams and the confidence needed to achieve them is the goal of Gear Up, a federally funded program aimed at helping urban students find their way to higher education.

Lowell began participating in Gear Up when the U.S. Department of Education awarded the city and the University of Massachusetts Lowell a five-year, $4.7 million grant in 1999. Since then, Lowell students have showed so much promise that the DOE plans to use the city as a model for the rest of the nation of how to plan academically and financially for college.

Lowell's Gear Up program will be featured on the DOE's monthly show Education News Parents Can Use, typically broadcast across the country on public access stations on the third Tuesday of every month from 8 to 9 p.m. throughout the school year.

Filmmakers employed by DOE visited Lowell yesterday, taking their video cameras and equipment through the Robinson Middle School and Lowell High School. They interviewed students, teachers and administrators, and filmed Gear Up programs such as after-school tutoring and one-on-one counseling in action.

While the cameras watched, Robinson teacher Donna Bejaniance led fifth-graders through an English class that emphasized note-taking skills and using the Internet. The students sat at tables in the school's media center, surrounded by books for all reading levels, purchased through Gear Up.

"With Lowell being an urban setting, Gear Up has made students aware that college is affordable and it is something they definitely should do," Bejaniance said.

The program does that by helping students from middle school through high school improve themselves academically, as well as set their goals. Field trips offered through Gear Up include visits to local colleges, such as UMass Lowell and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mentors start talking to students and their parents about college financing, even as early as middle school.

"The collaboration (between the city and UMass Lowell) has brought needed resources to the district, and it targets helping young people, many of whom have no tradition of higher education in their families," said Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr.

When the city and UMass Lowell accepted the grant for Gear Up in 1999, workers focused on sixth graders at five Lowell middle schools: Robinson, Rogers, Sullivan, Butler and Bartlett. Gear Up continues to follow that batch of students from grade to grade. At Robinson, they also sign up each additional sixth-grade class, so the program is growing in numbers. It started with about 800 kids, and is currently working with about 2,000, said Bowa Tucker, Gear Up program manager at UMass Lowell.

Tucker accepted the job in 1999 after he told his interviewers that his goal was to make Lowell a national model. Yesterday, he reached that milestone.

"I feel a lot of excitement and joy," he said. "It validates the effort we've made."

Tucker hopes that the federal government will expand the grant for at least one more year. The first batch of kids are now sophomores, and another year with Gear Up would help them in the college-search process. While he has watched the level of interest in college grow to about 85 percent of the students they work with, no one will know how successful the program is until that group of students graduates from high school.

Many of those who choose to go on to college will likely be the first generation of college graduates in their families.

Gear Up has succeed in Lowell partly due to the institutions that have made a commitment to it, Tucker said. Middlesex Community College also has a grant for Gear Up, Big Brothers Big Sisters helps with mentoring, and the YWCA has been involved in the past.

Without the program, it's possible that these students wouldn't be thinking about college.

"If you don't go to college, you're really not going to get a good job," said Alex.

"And if you have a family, you can support them better," Mariana chimed in.

The video clips filmed yesterday will air as part of a live show on Channel 22, Lowell's public access channel, from 8 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 18.